You love this year’s Chicago Bulls. So do I. I love Derrick Rose, with his puppy dog eyes and pit bull physique. The kid looks like he’d bite off his own fingers to get a win in a close game, and on the rare occasions when he fails, he looks so sad I want to buy him an ice-cream cone.
I love Luol Deng, too, and not only because he speaks Dinka. I love the way he makes the game look effortless. I love Joakim Noah, who comes off as seven feet of goofball, and even Carlos Boozer, a warrior past his prime yet clearly in denial. It’s a great bunch of guys. They don’t gloat when they win, they don’t sulk when they lose, and they don’t get arrested when they drink. What more could a fan want?
A championship would be nice. Trouble is, the oddsmakers are picking the Miami Heat, whom the Bulls are likely to face in the Eastern Conference finals for the second straight year. And on paper, the Heat remain the better team, which means we might see a repeat of 2011. LeBron James could once more play smothering defense against D-Rose in the final moments of close games, and the Bulls would struggle to score.
But the oddsmakers haven’t factored in one crucial detail. There’s a member of the Bulls who might help them steal this thing. I’m talking about my favorite guy on the team—its coach, Tom Thibodeau. If Derrick Rose plays the game with the expression of a man suffering ulcers, Thibodeau looks like someone on the brink of cardiac arrest. He looks like he slept three hours on his office floor with a bag full of basketballs for a pillow.
Here’s what Rose had to say about his coach in an interview last spring with K. C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune: “I’ve never played for a coach who was that focused. There’s nothing else—no kids, no wife, no leisure time to watch TV. I’m dead serious. There’s nothing else going on. I’ve never heard about Thibs being out eating. I never ran into him eating anywhere. . . . I’ve never been around a coach like him.”
No one has. In a league filled with obsessive-compulsive coaches, he’s possibly the worst. Which, if you’re a Bulls fan, means he’s the best. There’s not a player on the team who outworks him. The Bulls come prepared to play because Thibs comes prepared to coach.
He has a plan. He’s probably been working on it since last May, when the Heat eliminated the Bulls in five games. The plan starts with gaining home-court advantage. You will see the Bulls busting their tails to win every game in this year’s compressed schedule, because their coach will never let them forget that if they want that seventh game against the Heat to be played at the United Center in May, they’d better take care of the Pacers on April 25.
But even if the Bulls have the better record, when the matchup finally arrives, the Heat will enter as favorites. That’s fine with Thibodeau. Pressure’s on the big boys. LeBron, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh were supposed to win more championships than Michael or Kobe. So far, they’re 0 for 1. If they go 0 for 2, Miami fans might do something desperate . . . like start watching baseball games.
The Heat have three big stars and a mediocre bench. The Bulls have one big star and an excellent bench. For the Bulls to win, Thibodeau will have to make that bench a deadly weapon. He’ll have to throw Ronnie Brewer at LeBron, for example, forcing LeBron to burn energy on defense.
The Bulls will have to be perfect. Rose will have to play like MJ, scoring 30 points or more in every game. Deng will need to be Pippen, a reliable second scorer and a demon on defense. The bench will have to be so good and so artfully deployed that the Heat can’t afford to rest their stars and those stars begin to fatigue.
If the Bulls win it, it will be primarily because Thibs outsmarted his rival. He’ll be the hero. Maybe he will even celebrate with dinner in a restaurant.
Photograph: Nuccio di Nuzzo/Chicago Tribune